Legislative failure to strengthen safeguards for elderly Minnesotans is no excuse for further inaction. It is now up to those who advocated for reform to accomplish what lawmakers did not this session: launching a process that yields robust recommendations by early 2019 for modernizing oversight, a task that must include providing a swift and sure path to licensure for assisted-living facilities.
It is an outrage that such a sorry outcome occurred at the State Capitol on such a critical issue — one that appeared to have admirable momentum early in the session. Late last year, the Star Tribune news series “Left to Suffer” documented appalling instances of abuse suffered by vulnerable seniors in facilities.
The Office of the Legislative Auditor also swung into action and issued a well-researched report detailing regulatory gaps and flawed state processes to investigate abuse. A critical auditor’s finding: The state registers but does not license assisted-living facilities, resulting in weaker oversight even as these facilities care for a surprising number of seniors with serious conditions such as dementia.
But common ground on doing right by frail seniors crumbled as the session wore on. The final reform package fell far short of what elder care advocates sought. Instead, reforms reflected the industry’s leeriness of moving too quickly on licensing assisted-living facilities and Republicans’ wariness of giving state officials authority to make that happen if lawmakers fail to act.
The reforms were also tucked into a 990-page supplemental budget bill instead of being passed as a stand-alone bill. Essentially, they became leverage for Republican leadership to obtain concessions from Gov. Mark Dayton on other, more contentious issues. Dayton vetoed the bill on Wednesday. While less than ideal, the reforms should not have been held hostage.
There’s understandable frustration about going back to square one from all who worked so hard on this issue. But temptation to levy blame should be tempered. Despite disagreements, it’s clear that elder care advocates, long-term-care providers, legislators and state health officials are passionate about making changes for the better. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of how.
The focus now needs to be on how all of these stakeholders can come together and move forward to make that happen. A good start is convening the work group that this year’s reforms would have set up if enacted. A core mission would be laying out a path to assisted-living licensure. If legislators drag their feet on this, there must be an alternate path forward, whether through state agency rule making or another route.
There’s no reason this group can’t begin meeting soon and have its recommendations done in time for the 2019 session, even without a legislative framework and funding. Yes, the work just got harder, but the responsibility of protecting elderly Minnesotans is too important to let it stall.